Hostility has been prompted not only by the environmental impact of the project, but also by the fact that the project is almost totally export-oriented.
On Saturday August 10th 2013, deep in the fertile region around the city of Voronezh, ten local Cossack residents were painting a cross under the watchful eyes of a couple of hundred police officers.
This 'protective cross' was erected here a year ago as a sign that the local population would not allow the mining of nickel and copper deposits at nearby Yelanskoye, known for centuries in this area as Russia's 'bread basket.'
Since a rally in June attended by 4000 people ended in clashes with the law, any anti-nickel activity now attracts this kind of police attention. Protesters broke down the perimeter fence at the proposed mining site, and set fire to drilling rigs, causing an estimated two million dollars-worth of damage.
"Nickel shortens your life!". Photo RIA Novosti/Lesya Polyakova
The project was a minefield from the start. The decision to announce a tender for the development of what are believed to be the last major nickel reserves in Europe, was taken without any economic, social or ecological feasibility studies.
Neither were the views of the local population on this 30-year development project - with centuries-long environmental consequences - canvassed, let alone taken into account.
All this in the most unspoilt area of Russia's Black Earth region, capable of feeding people and indefinitely providing a solid base for the local economy.
The metal deposits are only 20 kilometers away from one of the few untouched areas in Central Russia: the river Khoper (or Khopyor), a tributary of the Don, and the Khoper Nature Reserve, an important bird sanctuary. The reserve is also home to the almost extinct Russian desman, a small mammal belonging to the mole family.
The local population has called for a total ban on the mining of nickel and other non-ferrous metals in the Black Earth zone. Their hostility has been prompted not only by the environmental impact of the project, but also by the fact that the project is almost totally export-oriented.
Indeed, 90% of the nickel mined in Russia ends up abroad, and the Ural Metal and Mining Company (UGMK), which won the tender, is - like most such companies operating in Russia - registered in Cyprus.
The protest campaign has been going on since March 2012, when the tender documents were released, and it is actively supported by up to 85% of local residents. Two rallies in Novokhopersk - a small town of 6,000 inhabitants - have attracted crowds of 5,000.
At first, the local authorities ignored the protests, but after a few months, dozens of rallies, and more than 30,000 signatures on a petition condemning the project, they finally reacted with a smear campaign against the protesters.
The local newspaper, which rejoices in the name of 'Brekhunets' ('The Bullshitter'), wrote that the public in general welcomed the prospect of new jobs and the wonderful company that was investing in their area.
Everyone, it continued, would benefit from the new mine, apart, that is, from this small group of paid agents-provocateurs who were determined to stick a spanner in the works.
The rest of the regional media took up the same official cry. The locals understood that they would get no help from the media in explaining their position.
Developers above the law
It was known locally that the police had ordered the removal of the perimeter fence enclosing the proposed mining site and some adjacent bits of land appropriated by the developers, but the fence was still standing.
Behind the fence, geological surveys were being carried out on land officially designated as agricultural. Yet, apparently, none of the local 'powers-that-be' could do a thing about it.
Legal experts, moreover, also believed that leasing the land to the developers involved the local authority in breaches of numerous regulations and corrupt practices.
Unfortunately, the documents proving this were lying untouched in the Voronezh regional public prosecutor's office, which environmental activists had already taken to court for its inactivity in this matter. The locals understood that a legal avenue was also not available to them.
They then attempted to hold a local referendum, but couldn't get the necessary permission. The courts were of little help, even though the Russian Federation's Constitution states that local residents should decide on matters concerning underground natural resources.
The court session confirming the referendum ban took place, as it happens, four days before the infamous 22nd June demonstration.
If people have no access to the media to publicise their case, and no effective legal means of pursuing their campaign, and if, moreover, the authorities are unwilling to uphold the law, then the people have to act directly.
They have to actively demonstrate that they are many, and that they are firmly against this development; they can only do this by exercising their civic rights under the Constitution.
Participants of a protest against nickel production were brutally beaten by security guards of the LLC Mednogorsky Copper and Sulphur Plant in May 2013.
The state machine is, of course, obliged to respond. The various protest actions against nickel and copper mining in the Black Earth zone have resulted in several dozen convictions for minor offences, such as breaking the law on demonstrations and resisting arrest, and a few more serious cases of actual bodily harm.
The case against some Cossacks who allegedly used violence while chasing the CEO of 'Voronezhgeologia' (responsible for the mining surveys) and his brother off the site, is still under investigation.
Smear and intimidation
The smear campaign against the protesters, and the body searches and interrogations - lasting several days - that they have been subjected to, are clearly out of proportion with the charges. These minor offences are usually dealt with by local magistrates and, according to the lawyers, never involve body searches.
The official investigation of events at the proposed mining site, on June 22nd, has been less than even-handed. The 4,000-strong demonstrators did not touch either the geologists or the guards; six police officers were slightly injured; two were poisoned by combustion gases; one cut his hand on the sharp edge of the metal perimeter fence and three received a bruise.
The five people who have been charged with using violence against these officers are in fact from the town of Uryupinsk, in the neighbouring Volgograd region.
Activists see this as another tactic in the information war, with the authorities attempting to show that the protests were instigated by outside elements, and that the locals had no quarrel with the project. No one is trying to deny that people from other regions took part in the campaign - so they should.
The nickel-bearing area is practically on the border of the Voronezh and Volgograd regions - with Uryupinsk further down the Khoper river - and experts estimate that territory within a radius of several tens of kilometers will be adversely affected by the proposed mines and processing plants.
Heavy artillery has already been mustered against the eco-activists, in the form of high profile journalists such as Yulia Latynina. Latynina, who has columns in several papers as well as her own radio show, claims that the Black Earth protests have been artificially hyped; that the locals are uneducated yokels who don't understand the situation; and that the mining will do more good than harm.
Meanwhile, TV presenter Andrei Karaulov twisted the story of the June 22nd demo so flagrantly that the protesters are taking him to court. Among his contentions: that geologists were beaten up; that the mineshafts will be a mere seven centimeters in diameter; and that the aim of the protests is to weaken Russia.
Channel 1, a national broadcaster, and the main source of news for most Russians, told viewers that the protests were inspired by Russia's political opposition and UGMK's competitors.
President Putin informed - and involved?
Interestingly enough, at the same time as Karaulov's TV show was on air, representatives of the 'Protect the Khoper' movement - me amongst them - were telling Vladimir Putin about what was really happening. The president was attending the annual youth forum at Lake Seliger, in whose environmental sessions we were taking part.
We handed Putin our documentation, explaining that leading experts considered the Yelanskoye project unviable from an environmental, social and economic point of view; and that the region's development should concentrate on tourism and agriculture.
We also warned that further pressure on the local people would only lead to a more aggressive reaction, and eventually to an outbreak of unrest comparable to a local war.
Putin, however, is perhaps unlikely to cancel a project he himself signed off on, and one he is said to be involved in. UGMK's owner is one Iskander Makhmudov, who has business connections with both Russia's railway boss Vladimir Yakunin and billionaire businessman Gennady Timchenko - both known to be close to the president.
Meanwhile, in the week since our meeting with Putin, there have been several dozen articles published, and TV reports broadcast, alleging that the Yelanskoye situation is being manipulated variously by foreign agents, the American State Department, and perhaps even the Devil himself ... So, we must be doing something right.
Konstantin Rubakhin is the coordinator of the environmental movement 'Save Khoper National Park'. This article was first published by Open Democracy Russia under the title Where there's muck there's brass.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.